Are We Already Farming Enough Land to Feed 9 Billion People?

A new report says we’ve reached ‘peak farmland’—and that could be a good thing.

New research suggests that we're devoting too much land to agriculture. (Photo: Echo/Getty Images) 

Clare Leschin-Hoar's stories on seafood and food politics have appeared in Scientific American, Eating Well and elsewhere.

Humanity has reached peak farmland.

It’s a chilling phrase, isn’t it? Not like peak oil, which we’re long-used to hearing by now. And much more poignant than recent reports of peak fertilizer. (Which is really about peak phosphorous, and certainly is critical, but it doesn’t conjure up quite the same pastoral image.) No, peak farmland is something you can actually envision, and the pronouncement comes at a time when we’re closing in on a global population of 9 billion hungry mouths.

But hang on one minute...this new study is not another doomsday prediction. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.

“We believe that humanity has reached Peak Farmland, and that a large net global restoration of land to nature is ready to begin,” writes Jesse Ausubel, director of the Program for the Human Environment at the Rockefeller University in New York, and author of the study, said in a speech. “Happily, the cause is not exhaustion of arable land, as many had feared, but rather moderation of population and tastes and ingenuity of farmers.”

As reported by Reuters, Ausubel’s study, “Peak Farmland and the Prospects for Sparing Nature,” goes so far as to say that “a geographical area more than twice the size of France will return to its natural state by 2060 as a result of rising yields and slower population growth.”

Unfortunately, the new report doesn’t jive with existing data produced by the U.N.’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), and leans on a number of wild cards like continued use of biofuels, rates of meat consumption and rising crop yields. And, all that optimism doesn’t fit with a new report published in Nature Communications today, either—one that shows yields of important staple crops like rice and wheat are not increasing globally.

“Their report is about a world that could be, not a world that we have,” Jonathan Foley, director of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota, tells TakePart.

“Yes, we can supply the world’s calories and nutrition with the farmland we have, or even less. That is correct. We can deliver more calories with less land, water and chemicals. No question. But the trends we’re talking about…the trends in the real world are going in the opposite direction. Yields are stagnating.”

Still, there is good news to cling to in Ausubel’s report. China and India are indeed setting aside land. And while calorie consumption increases with wealth, the researchers point out that after an initial burst, meat consumption in China rose only moderately; and meat consumption in India changed little. And as many scientists and organizations point out, there's a link between meat consumption and climate change—whether it promotes the clearning of land for intense monocropping, or simply gassy cows contributing to CO2.  

“Consumers may spend more in restaurants, but they will not eat more potatoes, even as they spend more per potato. Satiety will relieve a considerable portion of upward pressure of population and affluence on cropland expansion,” says Ausubel.

How exactly we’ll get to this rosy future is the real question, says Foley.

“We’re pretty good at making more corn in Iowa, but we have a lot more work to do,” he says.

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